Black Widow is another MCU character where there's more depth than meets the eye. It's been said that she's underdeveloped or uninteresting, but I think she's hands down one of the most fascinating MCU characters that we've come across so far. Her arc is tragic and interesting; sharing parallels with many other Avengers whilst standing out as a story in itself. Whilst the character is often ignored, hopefully this discussion of her story so far will show how developed it really is.
So, we first meet Black Widow in 'Iron Man 2,' where the only real background we get from her is that she's working for SHIELD, and has been doing so for some time. It's really just a small supporting role that doesn't get very much character detail, so we have to wait until 'The Avengers' to learn much about her...
And we do learn a lot about her here, principally in her conversation with Loki. Here, it's revealed what a truly dark past Natasha has had, and how much it really troubles her underneath her flirty bad-ass bravado. We find out that she was trained as a Russian assassin from a young age, murdering and killing for anyone and everyone - in her own words, she "had a specific skill set" and didn't care what she used it for. So Black Widow did some very bad things before her time at SHIELD, and that's her reason for being here. In fact, it's here where we hit the whole idea behind Natasha's arc, and what her entire journey is about; "wiping her ledger clean." Like Tony, her story will be about her making up for her difficult and haunting past. However, whilst Tony's arc is more about him making up for the impact he's had on the world, Natasha's arc is more personal. It's this that makes her story so damn interesting, because it's about how she becomes a hero, rather than about her actions as a hero already.
So, we learn that to get her position here, Natasha was recruited by Hawkeye (her best friend,) and has since been working for SHIELD. Why? She thinks she's found a great place to make up for what's gone wrong before; SHIELD offering her a home, and a place to become someone different. She follows the orders she's given, and uses her amazing skills to follow these 'great people,' who she thinks make her someone better. The point here though, is that she's hiding her past from everyone, and suppressing it even from herself (this is why it's such a chilling and upsetting reminder when Loki begins to talk about it.) She's ashamed of who she really is, and is hiding it.
So effectively, 'The Avengers' sees Black Widow in a place where she's suppressing her past and following orders, but by the end also begins to sew the seeds for her next film, where it's revealed to her that SHIELD perhaps isn't what she kidded herself it was...
And that bring us onto 'Captain America: The Winter Soldier,' where at the beginning of this movie she's still in a relatively similar position to before. She's carrying on regardless, using her flirty bravado as a barrier to her past. She's afraid to let anyone close for fear they'll realise who she really is.
But then, it's revealed that SHIELD has been infiltrated by HYDRA, a secret Nazi organisation from the days of WW2. Natasha is suddenly shown that her surrogate family is in fact corrupt to the core - her comfort blanket has been torn away. The subsequent events in the film force her to expose herself to Steve, and later to the world, which reminds her all too closely of the past she's spent so long trying to forget.
Effectively, she is forced to realise that she can't just suppress her past to wipe her ledger clean. She's going to have to deal with her problems head-on, and start acting truly for herself instead of following orders. Of course, that won't be as easy as it seems, because she's spent so long following orders and hiding her past. Thus, the next film is where we get the most interesting Black Widow stuff, as it's all about her dealing with the fact she now has to deal with her problems and start accepting her past. This wont be easy, though, and it soon becomes clear how difficult it truly is...
So after 'The Winter Soldier,' it's clear she wants to move forward, but she's not entirely sure how to do this by herself yet. Thus she goes back to the one team that she can trust - The Avengers. So consequently 'Age of Ultron' begins and we see Natasha throwing herself head first into the new team of heroes. It's great to see this, but there's one much more significant journey for Black Widow in this film; she's now after a relationship with Bruce Banner.
This shocked and annoyed some fans because Black Widow's never been one to share herself with someone before. But that's because she was always hiding people from who she really was; now she's starting to accept her past, and she's ready to share that in a relationship to move forward.
So she's ready to share herself with someone, but why choose Bruce Banner? Well, when you think about it, these characters share quite a few parallels. Principally, they’ve both spent years pushing other people away; terrified by and ashamed of who they really are. Also, Banner is a character who avoids violence at all costs, which is ideal for Natasha; someone who is trying to get away from her murderous past. This relationship is why I think Natasha is portrayed as such a layered and strong character in 'Age of Ultron,' because she's not really the 'love interest;' Banner is.
But of course, accepting and sharing her past 'just like that' is not easy, and we see these fears personified in her dream sequence (which is a great way to explore her origin too.) It's this dream sequence that causes her to question whether she's still making choices now. Is she really the independent person she thinks she's now becoming? This causes her to look for an escape, and she thus asks to run away with Banner; "I dreamt I was something more than what they made me" refers to the fact she believes what she's becoming could all just be another big lie.
At the end of 'Age of Ultron,' Black Widow is the most conflicted she's ever been. She wants to make up for her past, but she also wants to run away from it. Her two conciseness trouble her greatly, but at the end of the film she decides to stay, and lead the Avengers with Steve. She's putting herself on the right path and doing something to wipe her ledger clean, this time for herself.
So it's all ok? Well lets not forget she's still plagued by her past (as her vision reminded her) and she's afraid of herself. Yes, at the same time she still has the new-found determination to wipe that ledger clean herself, yet she's also petrified of becoming a killer again. Her two consciences are moving further away from each other, and it's torturous for her.
[WARNING HEAVY SPOILERS AHEAD FOR CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR]
So, at the start of 'Civil War,' where is Black Widow? Well, she appears to still be playing a large role in training the new Avengers, suggesting she's still listening to the part of her that wants to become the hero and wipe her ledger clean. She initially appears much more clear cut and determined than before, but it's still clear that her past is troubling her. It's then of course that she's forced to decide whether she's pro or anti superhero regulation. She's confused, and really doesn't know what to do - this is a woman who is used to following orders, but suddenly has to decide on something huge. As we all know, Black Widow (initially at least) sides with Tony in backing the registration.
Natasha's initial position in 'Civil War' is probably the most surprising in the whole film. All her friends are on Team Cap, and we know she's seen first hand the corruption of government organisations. But the reason she sides with Iron Man is more complex than that.
We know after 'Age of Ultron,' Natasha is in a much more confident position to move forward and make her own choices, but she's still frightened of the person she really is deep down. So the reason she sides with the government is because she's still scared of going at it fully alone. It's the frightened side of Nat we see here - she's going back to the safety of following orders from others as she did with SHIELD before, whilst also leaning into a position where she can still try to wipe that ledger clean by doing this. She's frightened of herself, much like Tony, and sees regulation as the easiest way of controlling herself and becoming a hero - by instruction.
However the thing is that deep down, she believes it's not the right thing - and she knows it's what got her in her position in 'The Winter Soldier' in the first place. It's this other conscience that causes Nat to switch sides half way through the movie where she makes use of the more determined Nat we saw a glimpse of at the end of Age of Ultron. We witness her stopping Black Panther from going after Steve and Bucky at the end of the airport fight.
This is a very interesting shift, and it's far from resolved at the end of the movie. Really, I don't think 'Civil War' does a particularly good job of tying this arc up, but I guess that just makes seeing Natasha's position in 'Avengers: Infinity Wars' even more exciting. What's clear though, is that Natasha is still in a place where she's trying to move on from her troubling past, it's just that she's still not quite sure how. She's signed the Accords so that leaves her with Tony, but with her friends disbanded and Natasha conflicted as ever, she's arguably in her most confused and potentially difficult place by the end of the movie.
So what happens next? Well that's something we'll have to wait and see in her most likely next appearance: 'Avengers: Infinity War Part I' which debuts on ...
Aggh such a long wait!